Martha’s Vineyard misses the boat with medical marijuana

Islanders who legally obtain cannabis will break federal law when they bring it home.

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With no grow sites on Martha's Vineyard, Islanders eligible for medicinal marijuana must break federal laws to bring their prescription home. — Martha's Vineyard Times file pho

Martha’s Vineyard faces a medicinal marijuana paradox. While Island patients can now legally obtain medical cannabis in a Massachusetts Registered Marijuana Dispensary (RMD), there are no RMDs on the Island, and when they bring it home, they’ll be committing a federal offense.

While state law permits transporting the salubrious shrub from farm to a Registered Marijuana Dispensary (RMD), and to legally registered patients, it’s still a federal crime to transport it on the high seas up to 12 miles from shore. The U.S. Coast Guard has taken a clear stance on the issue. In a press release earlier this year, a spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard in Boston stated, “Our policy remains the same; it’s illegal to transport and possess marijuana.”

Transporting marijuana in United States airspace is also a federal offense.

The state medical marijuana law does not provide immunity under federal law, and the U.S. government takes a much different stance on cannabis from Massachusetts voters, 63 percent of whom approved the “Act for the Humanitarian Medical Use of Marijuana” in 2012. Seventy-four percent of Island voters approved the measure.

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, the same category as heroin, because it is defined as having no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. The penalty for a first offense for possession of any amount of marijuana, according to federal sentencing guidelines, is up to a year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine. For a patient on parole, the penalty can be far more severe.

Access denied

This is the second time Martha’s Vineyard has encountered complications with medical marijuana access. Although the 2012 law required each county in the state to have an RMD, Dukes County is one of four Massachusetts counties that did not receive a license. Berkshire, Franklin, and Nantucket counties are also bereft.

There is a change on the horizon. In response to the bungled application and awarding process in 2014, the Baker administration’s Department of Public Health (DPH) unveiled a more streamlined and efficient RMD application process in June, a stated priority of the governor in last year’s election. Eric Sheehan, interim director of the Bureau of Health Care Quality at DPH, told The Times that this time around, the counties without dispensaries will be at the front of the line, “to better fill underserved areas of the state.”

This change, however, is on a distant horizon. According to the DPH website, it will take licensees 210 to 540 days to complete their pre-opening protocol, and DPH protocol will take 38 to 79 days, although some days may overlap.

Even though the Island with heavy agrarian roots may someday be able to allow farmers to grow cannabis and circumvent the transportation problem, it’s going to be years before an Islander won’t have to commit a federal offense to bring his or her medicine home.
In a meeting on July 13, Marylou Sudders, the Massachusetts state secretary of Health and Human Services, said, “Perhaps we have to do something differently on the islands.”

Island growing initiative

Geoff Rose, president of Patient Centric of Martha’s Vineyard, is the only on-Island applicant seeking to open a RMD in the newly established format. While none of the four Island applicants were awarded a license in the first licensure round, Mr. Rose and his associates scored the highest with his plans for a West Tisbury location. “It’s definitely a lot more organized and streamlined this time,” Mr. Rose told The Times.

Mr. Rose and his partners were not reimbursed any of the $31,500 they paid to apply in 2013. This amount does not include a legal bill he described as “sizable.”

Mr. Rose is a sole proprietor this time, and said he will risk the same amount of money if he gets to the next level. As of Wednesday, he hadn’t heard from the state about the application he filed on June 29. “It’s hard to even make a guess at this point,” he said. “The last time took about a month until they got back and invited us to the second round, so I would be looking to the end of the month or sometime in early August.”

Growing cannabis on-Island has always been part of Mr. Rose’s business plan. “The issue of transportation is not new,” he said. “It was raised a year and a half ago for the Island and Nantucket because of the SSA. I simply said, ‘I’ll cultivate here.’ There are many reasons to do that, not the least of which is it’ll create jobs. That’s very important.”

Mr. Rose estimates Patient Centric of Martha’s Vineyard will create 15 full-time jobs. He said a Denver consulting firm calculated that enough cannabis should be grown to accommodate 2.2 percent of the population. With an estimated year-round population of 18,000, about 400 Islanders could be expected to seek medical marijuana.

“I projected a little bit higher,” Mr. Rose said. “One, because of the aging population, and unfortunately cancer tends to follow an aging population. Also, we have a significantly larger labor force of tradesmen that deal with chronic pain in a number of different ways.”

Currently only the flower of the plant can be sold at Massachusetts RMDs. However, once infused products like baked goods, teas, and tinctures are allowed, it will open up more opportunity to use local ingredients. “We will access any kind of local ingredients that will be involved with the edible product,” he said. “We really want to keep it all local.”

If Mr. Rose is awarded an RMD license, one more paradox hangs in the air. Fertilized seeds and seedlings are also illegal to transport across state lines and federally controlled skies and waters. Illinois lawmakers were faced with the same problem last year. “Everyone agreed to look the other way,” State Representative Louis Lang said in an interview with NBC 5 in Chicago. “We purposely left the bill silent. There is no way to write this.”